I didn't expect a whole lot from the movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. To be perfectly honest, I'm really tired of the whole supergenius-who-will-save-literature aura that surrounds Dave Eggers (who co-wrote the script), and it all felt just a little too hipper-than-thou what with Spike Jonze directing and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs doing the soundtrack. I'm sure they're all lovely people, and it's not their fault that they're currently pop culture icons, but it's easy to be annoyed by them.
Oh, and then there's the $460 Max's wolf costume sweatshirt by Opening Ceremony. They also offer, among many other items, $50 T-shirts, an $805 jacket inspired by the look of Wild Thing Ira, and a $575 necklace apparently inspired by Wild Thing Douglas's feathers. While these things are indeed lovely, the stench of marketing made the film slightly unappetizing to me.
Then, of course, there was the whole problem of whether or not the film would be true to the book. But honestly, I didn't care so much about that. As long as Jonze didn't turn the Wild Things into robots from outer space or anything, I was happy to see where he would go with it. Also, I love that when asked how he would respond to parents who say the film is too frightening for children, author Maurice Sendak said, "I would tell them to go to hell. If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered."
Heh heh heh.
And so yesterday afternoon Patrick and I went to see the film. I won't say that I loved it loved it, but I loved it a lot as a friend. In my opinion there are some awkward story problems and a few too many wild rumpuses. Whatever. The important thing is that the film beautifully captures the hideousness of childhood. And yes, I mean that in a good way.
We all know the story of Where the Wild Things Are. Max acts up. Max gets sent to bed. Max dreams about a world where his wildness makes him king. Then he learns that wildness sometimes has to be tamed. The end.
But Sendak's books are never that simple, and Jonze dives right into the inky heart of the story. Max is struggling with feeling powerless. His mother (his father is out of the picture) is dating someone new. His older sister doesn't stand up for him when her friends destroy his snow fort. There's a looming family financial crisis. No one listens to him.
And so he runs away and ends up on the island of the Wild Things. Where things are also in chaos. Something (we never learn what) has disrupted the formerly peaceful lives of the WT's. There's infighting. There's the strained relationship between fatherly Carol and motherly KW. There's a goat-like WT (Alexander) who is much smaller than the others and who bears a striking resemblance to Max and feels left out and unimportant. It's not difficult to see the parallels.
Max takes charge of the situation (mostly by accident) and tries to control it. He puts the WT's to work building the perfect fort for all of them to live in. But things quickly unravel, and soon the WT's are not just mad at each other, they're mad at Max. A dirt clod fight organized by Max between the "good guys" (the WT's Max feels closest too) and the "bad guys" (the ones who represent what he fears) mirrors the film's opening snowball fight. And like that one, the dirt clod battle ends in disaster when Max deliberately causes gentle, timid Alexander to be wounded. Having tried to reverse things as they were in real life and this time emerge victorious, Max instead finds that there's no joy to be found in attacking those weaker than himself.
Things go downhill from there, with some of the WT's questioning Max's abilities as king and the relationship between Max and Carol disintegrating. When Max commands Carol to make him a secret room in the fort so that he can get away from the WT's when he wants to, Carol explodes and threatens to destroy everything they've created. Max sees himself in Carol and knows that it's time to leave. Fortunately, Carol sees himself in Max and realizes the same thing. Only he'll be staying on the island of the Wild Things and using what he's learned to repair the damage that's been done.
Where the Wild Things Are is a dark book, and my suspicion is that people who react negatively to the film likely always thought the book was meant to be comforting. It isn't. It's about the darkness inside all of us. It's about the realization that life can be terrifying, and that although we can do our best to minimize that terror, it's still always there, lurking in the background. We just have to accept it and understand that the best we can do is try to be fearless in the face of it.
My favorite lines in the movie come during the climactic dirt clod battle. Having pinned the "bad guys" behind a fallen tree, Max attempts to trick them into coming out. Not coincidentally, his primary target is the sarcastic Judith, who throughout the movie is the one WT who doesn't embrace Max warmly and who frequently lets him know that she's on to him and won't hesitate to eat him if he fails in his role as king. The two have the following exchange:
Max: Come out!
Max: Why not?
Judith: Ahh, cuz you're gonna hit us in the head with dirt!
Max: Come out!
Max: Why not?
Judith: Because when I said you were gonna hit us in the head with dirt, you didn't say anything. That means you're planning to hit us in the head with dirt!
Max: Man, they really have us figured out.
Indeed they do, Max. Indeed they do.
PS: Karen O's soundtrack is actually really, really lovely. You should totally listen to it.